Sunday, 29 August 2010

Ed Miliband: tactical genius or irresponsible scaremonger?

One one level I like Ed Miliband. I really do. He's young, intelligent, energetic and - like many in our own party for whom I have admiration - has a strong appeal to his party's grassroots. He's also not afraid to admit where Labour have made mistakes and unlike some of the other candidates for Labour's leadership has in the past been far more forward-looking in his approach to politics.

However, Ed has recently launched something of an offensive against the Liberal Democrats. Thinking he's onto an obviously good thing repeating the misjudgements, half-truths and blatant misinformation of the tabloid press, he's targeted the Lib Dems in recent weeks. In attempting to portray the party's leadership as having "betrayed" its support and "sold out" on principles, he's clearly hoping to sow party division and damage the coalition.

A few days ago, Ed claimed that, in the event of any potential coalition between Labour and the Lib Dems in the future, that he "would not work with Nick Clegg" due to the Lib Dem leader's "support for [non-specified] spending cuts". Repeating the tactic Clegg himself used during the election to distance himself from Labour's leadership, Ed Miliband told the New Statesman that Labour should not be appealing to "Tory-supporting" newspapers and suggested instead that disillusioned Lib Dems were more likely potential converts to a revived Labour party. He was reported in The Scotsman as encouraging Lib Dem members and MPs to defect to Labour, claiming that Nick Clegg was "a kind of Tory" (Miliband throws down welcome mat for Liberals, 23/8/10).

I'm not convinced by any of this. I don't believe that there are these huge numbers of disaffected Lib Dem supporters, ready to jump onto a Labour ship that's lost its way. I'm not sure that Labour's claims of having already recruited so many defectors are actually accurate. And I fail to see that the tactic of targeting the Lib Dem leadership is either responsible or sensible in the long-term. This kind of grandstanding will appeal to the unions and the "left-wing" Labour grassroots, but it is counter-productive and tactically naive in regards to forging more positive future relations between Labour and the Lib Dems.

I've met some Labour members who have been keen to tell me what a tactical "genius" young Miliband is. Amongst other things I have heard is that "he is taking the fight to the Lib Dems", "exposing the Lib Dems for what they are" and "returning the Labour Party to its roots" . All this praise, and he hasn't even been elected as leader yet.

Already, Ed Miliband's insistence that he "can't" work with Nick Clegg appears tribalistic and short-sighted. Most voters are not left-wing tribalists or union officials, and don't care for this kind of approach to politics. They want politicians who can responsibly work through their difficulties and differences, not those who are eager to throw their toys out of the pram. They don't like mischief making or personality politics of the lowest common denominator variety. These tactics don't work.

Let's take the ridiculous rumour of the Kennedy non-defection (which was encouraged by Ed Miliband). Kennedy stated that "it is absolute rubbish, I am not joining the Labour Party and have not had any discussions about it with anyone from the Labour Party. I will go out of this world feet first with my Lib Dem membership card in my pocket", after which Ed Miliband was forced to publicly agree that no talks have taken place on Kennedy joining Labour. Not only did this make Ed look foolish, the issue undermined public confidence - not in the coalition - but in the media (which appeared irresponsible) and Labour (whose tactics were exposed as amounting to dirty tricks).

I'm not accusing Ed Miliband of personally sanctioning publication of these false claims. But this kind of ill-judged tactic is certainly in keeping with Ed's campaign; overly keen to resort to tribalism and smear and reluctant to fully engage with the wider spectrum of political thought. Pandering to the trade unions and old fashioned "lefties" doesn't actually help him but rather establishes him as a puppet of the unions and the more backward looking elements of the Labour party.

Tactically, he's picked the wrong target. And it's based on the outdated assumption that Lib Dems are ideologically closer to Labour that they are to other parties and therefore that Labour is a "natural home" to some of our members. In some respects this may have once been true, but a lot has happened since the days of Blair and Ashdown, especially in regards Labour's position on civil liberties. Instead of cynically targeting the Lib Dem leadership, any incoming Labour leader would be better advised to seek closer working relations with the Lib Dems - especially within, for example, the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament. This may have the effect of weakening the coalition to some degree and would also demonstrate Labour's commitment to bipartisanship. It would also provide policy platforms on which Labour and the Lib Dems can campaign together, potentially influencing the direction of Westminster coalition policy. In any case such relationships would create the necessary political environment in which future coalitions and understandings can be forged and would create a few problems for the Tories.

Ed Miliband's campaign has been a dismal one, unnecessarily negative and dependent on scaremongering. He has been too keen to embrace tabloid-style politics, encouraging unfounded rumours, suspicions and fears to spread and targeting personalities.

From a tactical perspective, it's suicide. In the absurd undemocratic logic of a Labour leadership contest, as a member of an affiliated trade union, I have a vote. At this stage I am not sure which way I will vote, as Andy Burnham, David Miliband and Diane Abbott each have qualities to recommend them from a Lib Dem point of view. But I will assuredly not be voting for Ed.

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